The Plowman Cometh
Back where I come from — the rugged upcountry of Washington, DC, east of Rock Creek Park — when you meet somebody, the conversation always starts with "What do you do?" It's basic social protocol.
In Maine, this doesn't work so well.
In Maine, as people are happy to tell you, nobody does just one thing for a living. That's one of those bits of popular wisdom that, while not true of everyone, does capture a certain important quality of Down East culture. We are subject here to economic tides that ebb and flow from year to year and from season to season. We're up against the hard fact that high-paying, white-collar jobs are few and far between. Many of the jobs that do exist are inherently seasonal.
But that's just one side of it. A lot of Mainers — including many of us who came to live here by choice and not by birth — just aren't all that career-minded. At least not in the conventional sense. We kind of enjoy the feeling that our lives are not exactly the same, day in and day out. If we bump into an errant Washingtonian who asks us, "What do you do?", we find it difficult to answer. What we do for money (this month) might be different than what we do for love (as time permits). Neither adequately defines us. Both are subject to change. And we like it that way.
I mention these things — which in all likelihood you already know — because I have obtained the service of a most truly excellent snowplow guy. This came as a substantial relief because my recently built cottage in the woods, though wonderful in every way, sits at the top of a 250-foot driveway that slopes dangerously and is shaded from the winter sun and aspires to become a toboggan chute. At this time of year, none of the necessities of life (except for the martinis my crazy artist neighbor Maria makes) can be had without driving, so I'm more or less dependent on the snowplow for my very survival.
The man's name is Rosey. He is a quintessential embodiment — an incarnation, a very avatar — of this thing I'm trying to articulate. I have absolutely no idea what Rosey would say if you asked him the DC question, "What do you do?" He does about twenty different things — among them serving as a town selectman, and playing in a bluegrass band called the Breezemere Bottom Boys. He is known to disappear for long periods into his shop where, for all I know, he conducts experiments into the use of antimatter beams for splitting firewood.Also, he plows driveways.
Now plowing driveways (and roads and parking lots and whatever else needs plowing) is a vital, time-honored and agreeably democratic occupation. Almost anyone can do it, given the funds to invest in a truck and plow. (Not everyone can do it with equal skill, which is why Rosey is such a catch … but anon.) In theory, it's a good way to supplement the kind of jobs that dry up in winter. But lately even snowplowing, like many traditional Maine occupations, from fishing to lumbering to mill work, finds itself i parlous straits. For several winters running we barely got enough snow to need shoveling, much less a full-blown plow-out. Those guys who'd sunk money into their plow trucks saw little return on their investment. Folks who were counting on that supplemental money were up the creek.
The past couple of winters have been better — or worse, depending on where you sit. For a while last year, Rosey was barely able to keep up. But what about next year? For that matter, what about next month?
Here's the truth of it. Snowplowing used to be a dependable way for a lot of Mainers to get through the winter. Now, thanks to creeping climate change, it's like squirrels and acorns. You've noticed this, probably: some years there are tons of acorns, other years hardly any.
That's a natural thing, part of the oaks' survival strategy. After a sparse acorn harvest the squirrels starve. Next fall, with fewer squirrels around, there's a better chance the acorns will survive, germinate, and give rise to a new generation of oaks.
It's sad to watch that happen to snowplow guys. And it's very odd to think that, of all the places you expect climate change to hit — in rising sea levels, for instance — the hammer comes down instead on this humble linchpin of our winter economy. I know Mainers are resourceful and they'll find something else to do. But it won't be easy for all of them. It could make you upset if you thought about it.
Richard Grant is a novelist and Down East Magazine Contributing Editor. He lives in Lincolnville, where Rosey is, indeed, a legend (and a selectman, and a tree man, and…)